Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Chickens - The Serial

...and the wire goes up....
....and up.....
cute aren't they....?

Well, things are moving on apace. Having acquired almost all the materials I needed to construct the run, I only needed some more concrete for the support posts and the buried fencing wire. I recently completed a fence post job and noticed that there were some broken bags of postcrete at Homebase. Having cheekily asked, I got four bags for half price – result!

The chicken wire was buried 18” into the ground and support posts were concreted in on top. The wire extended a foot or two above the top of the posts – some 9 feet in total – to give an unsupported upper edge to outfox any agile, acrobatic Vulpes that may fancy chicken for dinner.

It’s not a large run at this moment, but as we are relative begHeners (sic) there is plenty of room for now. Cleverly, I have left sufficient space to extend the run if we need to and once the potatoes have been dug up.

We are indebted to our wonderful neighbour, Wendy Rainthorpe whose friend supplied the eggs and her hen, Babbs supplied the necessary heat to hatch them. Of the eggs that did hatch, the three Sussex Reds are for us – two hens and a cockerel, we believe. Having met them, we’re getting very keen to bring them home.

As they are only 8 weeks old, we won’t be getting many eggs this year, but that gives us time to get used to them and them to get used to us. I have to finish off the door to the run, buy the bedding and the food and tidy up around it, then we will be ready…..

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Things That Glow In The Dark (Lampyris noctiluca)

A poor photo taken at night of a Glow worm in our front 'heap'
Last year we discovered a glow worm bug strolling across our path. Actually, I am relatively unsure that an insect can be said to 'stroll'; it does imply a certain nonchalance that may be well beyond the capability of such a simple life form. In fact, upon further consideration I would have thought that, if anything, its perambulations would err on the side of speed to ensure its safe passage across, what to it, must appear to be acres of no cover whatsoever.

A Glow Worm in daylight.

I digress; we discovered the insect hastily making its way across the path and were intrigued, on looking in the Bug Book, as we had no idea that Glow Worms existed in the UK. Then late one evening, my wife spotted a pair in the dusk, glowing greenly in the grass of our lawn.

This year they are back and are inhabiting our pile of chipped pine from the removal of four trees from the front of our cottage. This heap is incredibly hot within and must provide a warm environment for them to wave their burnished bottoms in the air. These bright lights are the female of the species and as may be expected, the waiving of posterior pilot lights is to attract the flying males with which to mate. We now have three burning beauties in our love pile and will keep a close eye on them, especially during the rain.

Naturally, the spreading of pine chips will be delayed to encourage the gathering of Glow Worms.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Scotland 2011 - A Very Strange Day

This is an article recently published in the BSG magazine.

I have to say straight away that Scotland is my Favourite place to be. I first discovered it in 1990 – driving through the heaviness of Glencoe in a November dusk and I have returned time and time again since. I never tire of its Beauty, its diversity or the friendliness of the Scots. I never feel baulked by the long drive – there or back – and I never miss an opportunity to go.

So when Frankie was invited to Aberdeen and Moray to demonstrate and run some workshops, I had been looking forward to it all year.

This piece is not about the wonderfully friendly Sugarcraft ladies from both cities, it is not about the diversity of architecture of Aberdeen and Elgin - it is not even about the fishing. This is about one very odd day when strangeness was in the air, when the fey Scotch mist dissipated and turned one normal day into a day not to be forgotten. It is about Thursday 22nd September 2011.

It was certainly an odd few hours - although that might be an understatement; a little like saying that the wedding of Kate and William was slightly extravagant.

Of course, it could also easily be an overstatement, my perception on these things is somewhat hazy at times – we’ll just have to see, I suppose.

The day started normally enough – we were on holiday finally, after working for a few days and the three of us (and the dog – mustn’t forget the dog!) decided that a drive to Ballater, a nice walk in some wonderful scenery and a spot of lunch would be in order.

I had found a road on the map that looked interesting; it ended up in the middle of nowhere around the back of the Balmoral Estate at a Loch called Muick in Glen Muick and was at the beginning of the eastern end of the Cairngorms. There was nothing beyond it apart from Country. Miles and miles of Country – mountains, moors, rivers and, hopefully, not too many people.

It’s not that I don’t like people, individually, but when they get together they seem to become an entity rather than just a lot of ‘persons’. It’s like one wasp on its own is sort of ok, but you wouldn’t want an entire swarm anywhere near you.

Anyway, I had found this road and having partaken of a lunch in the delightfully overestimated cuteness of Ballater - there’s a Shopping Mall there for goodness sake! Ok, only three shops in it, but a mall in a tiny village is never the less pushing the definition tourism in the wee place just a little too far – we took a leisurely drive over the bridge into what the road sign called South Deeside.

Now, to me, that just sounds industrial! South Deeside - like South Merseyside or Thameside, which always makes me think of Wapping. The truth was entirely different. We were in very beautiful surroundings of mixed woodland on a single lane road just approaching the foothills of the Cairngorm Mountains. The traffic was light and there were ample passing places along it to allow oncoming traffic to pass.

And that was exactly what I did when I saw the large black Range Rover beetling its way down the lane. The driver gave me a stunning smile, a wave of his hand and mouthed “Thank you” before driving politely past.

It was Prince Charles.

Like two gunslingers in a western shootout, Frankie and her sister Anne pawed for their cell phones, within a split second texts were on their way around the world….
“You’ll never guess who we just saw…”

My only thought, other than to marvel at the speed at which mobile phones had been located, loaded and fired, was to wonder if Prince Charles was saying “Was that Mike Kelly? It was…I’m sure that was Mike Kelly…”

The weirdness had begun.

In a few minutes though, we were really in the Country. Deciduous trees had given way to Coniferous forest which had now yielded to open Scottish Moorland. Breathtaking views around each corner became different each time the sun pierced through the scudding clouds creating rainbows on the autumn sky and coruscating across the distant loch and rivers. The girls were finally quiet which either meant that they were as gobsmacked as I hoped they would be or the mobile signal had been lost.

After a few miles we reached the visitor centre car park, even out this far there were tourist pennies to be taken, but I felt that it was ok out here. An ancient crofting village had been preserved, real people still lived and worked here, but the visitor centre was a very real attempt at education, conservation and maintenance of the area and three pounds wasn’t too much to pay for that.

As I was putting my money into the machine and marvelling at the dozen or so cars in the car park – what were all these people doing out here? – I looked down. There was a piece of paper lodged between the ticket machine and the longish grass growing tight against it. It was a ten pound note. A Scottish ten pound note, but real money none the less. That was nice, not life changing you understand, but a bit like finding money in a pair of jeans you haven’t worn for a while or discovering that there’s still one last custard cream in the corner of the biscuit tin that you missed earlier. I strolled back to the car thinking that it was turning out to be a very nice day thank you very much and a nice long walk now would be the icing on the cake. Annie asked if she could stay in the car while we took Basil the dog for a walk. She wanted to relax (sleep) and I think that she thought it might rain. Actually, that’s a pretty good mind set to have in Scotland in September – it might rain! A suitable mindset for Scotland in June and July is that there may be midges around, as well as the previously mentioned rain mindset of course. But as Billy Connolly once said – there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes. We had the right clothes and so, leaving Annie in the car with a good book and some Scottish Tablet in case of emergencies, we set off along the track towards the Loch.

A mile or so along I spotted a lone figure walking towards us. Clad in green wellies, olive green jacket and hat she was walking with a good pace and purposeful stride.

“That’s Camilla.” I thought to myself. Frankie was pre-occupied with Basil who had yet to grace us with his daily gift of a perfectly formed poo. “That’s Camilla and I don’t know how to address her. Is that Camilla? It is, oh my God it’s Camilla – what do I say?” my thoughts continued to race as the figure approached.

It made perfect sense to me that Camilla should be out here; I didn’t once stop to think that it was strange to see her. This was where she lived and if I lived here I would be out all day everyday. If this was my back garden I would spend as much time out in it as possible – that didn’t strike me as unusual. Neither did her lack of companions, she was alone and looked hale and hearty, happy to be alive and unconcerned about her solitude, maybe she felt the same about people as I do. No, all I could think about was what to say to her. Frankie was still unaware of the proximity of Royalty right up until I said the only thing that I could think of at that particular moment, which was;

“Ooo hello, we’ve just seen your husband.”

At this point Frankie looked up expecting to see someone we knew or at the very least someone I knew. It had happened before and strangely with the same sister in the same country.

We were staying near Loch Tummel and had spent a wonderful day around Rannoch Moor and Loch Rannoch spotting salmon leaping in the falls, red deer and buzzards in the hills and many species of birds all around us. We had stopped along the roadside to fire up the KellyKettle (The most wonderful invention, ever, Google it if you don’t know what one is!) making a fresh brew of tea whilst drinking in the scenery of the River Tummel, the Queens View and the Hydro Electric Dam (much better to see than to say). Then, in the evening, we had eaten a wonderful meal and had partaken of a dram or two of various single malts and were relaxing in the afterglow verging on stupor when Annie had leapt to her feet exclaiming “I don’t believe it!” and dashed across the restaurant. She had seen a work colleague from Bexhill who was also on holiday in the same Hotel at which we were staying.

It was a touch surreal because the thing one most tries to forget whilst on vacation is work, but it does seem to be the main encroachment into sleep and thought, for the first few days at least, until one is sufficiently unwound enough to completely forget about it. For a colleague to appear in the same Hotel in the same week, to me, is the stuff of nightmares but Annie seemed rather pleased.

I notice I have slipped into using the pronoun “One” since mentioning Royalty, I wonder if I could get away with using the royal “we” on the odd occasion as well.

“What a charming dog, I have one of these too” said Camilla, with a smile. I was considering bowing, but could quite easily have slipped into a curtsey and so decided to remain upright for the time being.

“Thank you,” Frankie said, the epitome of cool “he is rather cute.”

I was trying to choose my next comment, still struggling with ‘Your Grace’ versus ‘Your Highness’ or maybe just plain ‘Ma’am’ to rhyme with jam not farm, of course, when I discovered, to my horror that Basil had chosen this moment to relieve himself of his little package right in front of the future Queen of England. Dumbstruck, I stuttered an apology, “Oh, it’s ok” said Camilla, completely unfazed before wishing us good day and striding on.

In a daze I glanced around looking for a stick to remove said package from the path swearing at the ignobility of the hound as I did so. Frankie naturally had drawn her cell phone once more only to discover the continued unavailability of any network and so our encounter went unbroadcasted for the time being.

Our own walk continued for a way further but the weirdness was not yet at an end. As we approached the Loch a piece of crumpled paper rolled along the heather pushed by the breeze. Muttering something about litter miles from nowhere, I considered picking it up whilst noticing a familiarity about its colour. It was a twenty pound note – an English one – wrapped around a two pence piece that must have fallen from someone’s pocket at some stage fairly recently as it was only a little damp.

I’m still not sure what was going on; we considered the possibility of Camilla spreading the coin of the realm to ease the suffering of us poor middle classes, but really it was an extreme case of happenstance and anyway I gave the twenty to Frankie who used three pounds of it to buy us a lottery scratch card each. The girls won nothing.

I won a tenner!

A rather poor photo of Camilla taken after the dog poo was cleared away!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Nestling In The Dark...Horse Mushroom (Agaricus arvensis)

Nestling in the dark undergrowth, I found this mushroom, pictured above and below, along with another monster alongside that had long since gone over and turned to a soggy black morass. 

Named for its size and not its proximity to or relationship with anything equine, this large member of the field mushroom family is a good find due to its size and taste. Because of the excessively wet start to summer this year, I am finding my fungi a little earlier than usual.

For the majority of mushrooms and toadstools the requisite conditions are warmth, humidity or dampness and darkness, so a wet, warm April, May and June has been an ideal start and a rummage around the shrubbery, hedgerow or woodland will reveal a few early examples of one of the weirdest food items nature has to offer - the fungus. Smelling slightly of aniseed, this white wonder is quite easily recognised due to its size and its resemblance to the large field mushroom that you can buy in the shops.

A young horse mushroom just emerging

As always, it pays to take care when foraging fungi. The most usual mix-up with field mushrooms of the Agaricus family is the poisonous Yellow Stainer. As its name suggest, this latter mushroom instantly glares an almost flourescent yellow when cut and bruised and is quite alarming. It also emits a strong anticeptic odour rather than the pleasantly aniseed smell of the arvensis.

Take care, but enjoy the countryside.

Another newly-emerged horse mushroom

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Wild Sorrel

Fresh green sorrel can be found almost anywhere

Nestling among the undergrowth and usually along the hedgerows is another lemony tasting plant that adds refreshing tints to a salad or a zesty zing to a fish dish. In its young stage the leaves could be mistaken for Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum), but one nibble of the plant will put you right if you do make a mistake. The Arum is poisonous, but one taste will numb your lips and tongue and you will be aware pretty instantly (I have tried it and it is unpleasant immediately) of its horrid nastiness. I believe it would be impossible to poison yourself as eating with a severely swollen tongue, mouth and throat would hamper the process somewhat. Look for the pointed backward pointing lobes of the sorrel as apposed to the rounded lobes of the Arum.

Young sorrel leaves in a lawn

As always, please be aware of what you are picking - get a book (or two or three) go out with it in your pocket and discover what the countryside has to offer.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Wild Mint

I came across the plant in the picture above less than 100 yards from our cottage and believe it to be the milder apple mint, though it can be hard to tell until it flowers.

It's worth looking for this perfumed plant especially if you have an aversion - as many do- to letting garden mint run rampant among your borders - even pots cannot contain its propensity to multiply sometimes. But also wild mints have a milder, less overpowering aroma making it ideal for the more subtle flavours of sweet dishes as well as the normal lamb with which it is usually associated. 

This is yet another introduced plant which has become naturalised and with the summer months quickly approaching (although perhaps not the summer weather, yet at any rate!) its subdued minty hints will be best served in a jug of Pimms.